Tony was shaking like a leaf. His father stood behind him, looking on in disgust.
“Weak,” Howard spat, shoving Tony harshly to the side.
On a tear filled breath, “I did what you asked.”
“Barely. This is sub-par work at best, and you were blubbering like an infant the whole time.”
The sound of flesh striking flesh rang through the room, but this time Tony did not cry. Unlike the man with the metal arm, this Tony was familiar with. Howard had always been a bit… heavy handed.
“Clean up your face, and then you will watch how it should be done.”
Just like that, Tony had been dismissed. He hastily wiped his face and watched his dad carefully. Morbid fascination, as well as Tony’s extreme fear of his father, ensured that Tony could not look away. Even when the man was screaming as Howard began to dig into the inner workings of that metal arm, Tony could only watch. Howard was precise and careful of the delicate parts, as he always was, but he seemed to have no inclination to ease the pain of the man who was digging his fingers into the armrests so hard that his finger nails were separating from the skin, leaving bloody flesh in their place.
It seemed an eternity before Howard was finished with the arm. The man in the chair, having screamed himself hoarse, was staring silently at something Tony could not see. But the Stark patriarch was obviously not finished with the man, because when he stood he pulled a contraption over the man’s head. It covered a good portion of his face, and Tony would bet his first circuit board that some of the bruises he had seen earlier were from that very machine.
A bite guard was placed in the man’s mouth, and then Howard walked over to the main power bank of the computers. He fiddled around a bit, typing codes and flipping a few switches. Suddenly, all of the air was knocked from Tony’s lungs, as the room lit up and the man on the chair began convulsing, screaming. It was unlike any human sound Tony had ever heard, but more akin to a terrified animal. It reminded Tony of a cat he had once taken in. Almost exactly like this man, the cat had screamed when Howard had gotten his hands on it.
Tony was only six, but he knew that a person on a cocktail of drugs made up of what he had seen on his way in, shouldn’t have been able to jerk like that. Their muscles should have been too lax. But the chair obviously pumped enough electricity into the man to stimulate his muscles into rigidity. And that terrified Tony, because he knew exactly how much electricity that would take. Enough electricity that the man should be dead .
He didn’t know it was over, he didn’t know he was even crying, until another sharp slap landed upon his cheek. “Shut up." To himself he muttered "Sniveling child," before speaking directly to Tony.
"I’ve talked to Zola,” Those words were what brought Tony's attention to the fact that another man had joined them in the room. “and he has given me a suggestion about how to toughen you up. You enjoy ballet, don’t you, Tony? Those sissy classes your mother has been insisting I pay for will finally be of some use.”
Tony was confused. He had no idea what his mother and ballet had to do with what was happening in this clinically cold and disinfectant smelling room. Too late, Tony realized his dad had still been talking. He only caught the tail end of what Howard said.
“You’re going to ballet school, Tony. In Russia.”
Mama was so happy, and she rarely ever was. Too often Tony found her staring out of windows, her eyes dull and empty, or swallowing those tiny pills with swigs of wine. Tony knew what addiction was. He knew that his maman and father both suffered from addictions of their own. He may have been six, but he wasn’t dumb.
Despite her defects, Tony loved his maman. And so he tried his hardest to be happy as well. It was a good thing the smallest Stark was a good actor, because he wasn’t happy. He was terrified. Howard had told him not to tell anyone about the man with the metal arm, and he wasn’t dumb enough to test what his father would do if he defied that particular order.
But Tony knew that being “accepted” to this school was not an accomplishment, it was a punishment. He had always believed his father would eventually send him to boarding school, like most members of New York’s Elite did with their children, when he came of an age that it was acceptable to dump one’s child off on another person. He never suspected he would be sent to a ballet academy.
For one, his father hated the fact that Tony was in ballet. The only reason he had even started was because Maria had insisted. Though if asked, everyone could admit that two years of ballet had taught Tony a certain respect for discipline and authority.
Another thing was that Howard had been clear this was to “toughen him up” for not having handled the Metal Armed Man’s maintenance well. There was absolutely no way that this school was what Maria thought, but Tony had no idea what it actually was. Hence his terror.
Smile. That was the thought running through Tony’s head on repeat as Jarvis packed his single suitcase in the car, and his maman tittered about what a wonderful opportunity this was.
“My Antonio, chosen to dance at a prestigious Russian ballet academy.”
Tony’s face must have done something, because his maman rushed to reassure him. “It’s alright dear. No need to worry about all of these rumors about Russian spies and the like. You’ll be perfectly safe. This is such an honor, bambino. You’ll be so good. You’ll dance around the world.”
Maria’s eyes got a far away look, and when she placed her hands on his shoulders so she could steady herself as she leaned in to kiss his forehead, Tony noticed they were shaking. Inwardly, Tony shouted. Why couldn’t his maman see what was happening? Why did she have to be so deep into those little pills that she couldn’t help her only son?
Before Tony’s happy mask slipped Jarvis stepped in, precise and subtle as always. Tony smiled gratefully at him, and then was gathered into the arms of Ana Jarvis. The kindest and most attentive woman Tony had ever met. A woman who loved wholly and was fierce in her protection of her family. Tony felt lucky to be considered a part of that.
“My sweet Antul,” she whispered into his hear, her beautiful voice lending a soothing quality to her native Hungarian. “Do well. And do not forget that Edwin and I love you very much. With all of our hearts, little one. Remember that.”
As Ana walked away, heading back into the house to prepare Howard and Maria’s lunch, Tony could not help but think that Ana knew something that she was not telling anyone.
“Alright Anthony, it’s time to be going,” Jarvis startled Tony by speaking from directly behind him.
Swallowing hard, the child nodded and waved to his maman. For some reason, this all felt so final. However it was that he had this knowledge, Tony knew this would be that last time he’d see his maman. A single tear fell down his cheek, quickly being wiped away before anyone could see.
Jarvis buckled him in the back of the car, then rounded it to get in on the driver’s side. Tony didn’t look back, didn’t wave again to his maman. He was afraid if he turned around, he would turn to find his maman had already gone back inside.
When Tony arrived at his academy, a place in the middle of nowhere that was surrounded by pristine white snow, it was already dark outside.
The man who had picked him up had gotten rid of Tony’s suitcase, telling him in gruff Russian that he would not be needing anything. The academy would provide it all.
Watching his things be thrown to the wayside, Tony was suddenly glad he had tucked the locket with the picture of Ana and Jarvis into his shirt.
A rough shove to his back got Tony moving quickly down the stone path that seemed to be cut into the snow.
He was freezing, not having worn heavy enough clothes onto the plane, and his shoes were making soft slapping sounds on the stone. In contrast, the man behind him was dressed in heavy furs and seemed to glide over the stone, his steps making no sound.
When they reached the door, the man stepped in front of Tony and rapped sharply five times, and then softly three more times. The door swung open to reveal a tall, thin woman with sharp grey eyes and black hair pulled back in a severe bun. She was wearing a high collared dress, the dark green fabric stiff and rough looking. She simply nodded at the man, and then Tony was led down a hall way to a room with a drain set into the floor, and a large hose attached to a spout on one wall.
“Strip,” he was instructed.
Confused and scared, Tony began pulling off his clothes. It was not something he was used to, undressing in front of a watchful stranger, but he figured he should get used to it since he was about to live in a house full of other boys who would be sharing his space.
Once he was naked, the man lifted Tony's arms, instructing him to hold them up where he had placed them. Then, he was searched. Since he was naked, Tony could only assume the man was looking for injuries.
Tony didn’t have any, unless you counted the bruises littering his thighs and arms.
Apparently, the man came to the same conclusion, because he stood from his crouch and looked at Tony a moment. So quickly Tony didn’t have time to register the movement, the man ripped the locket right off, the broken clasp catching and ripping the sensitive skin on the back of his neck.
“No need for sentiment here. No need for feeling. Only calculation.”
Tony definitely would have filed that under his ever growing list of red flags, maybe would even have figured out what would be in store for him here, but his train of thought was interrupted by a cold and harsh blast from an industrial hose.
The water was frigid, but the almost burning feeling of too cold skin was preferable to the harsh scrape of the horse hair brush that the man used to scrub his skin until it was red from the blood that was dragged up to just below his skin.
This time, Tony was able to brace himself for the cold water, so although it was just as chilly and stinging, Tony’s body didn’t immediately lock up from shock.
Apparently dubbing Tony sufficiently clean, the man turned the hose off and approached Tony with a worn looking towel. His dry job of the shaking six-year-old was slapdash and barely effective, but Tony ended up mostly dry in the end.
To his absolute humiliation, Tony was marched through the halls completely naked. His feet were numb on the cold stone floor, and he could feel every individual, freezing drop of water that lingered on his skin. Discomfort his main focus, Tony was startled when the man put a rough hand to his chest and effectively stopped his forward motion. A quick look up revealed that they were stopped in front of a laundry room, with lines and lines of hanging clothes and big washers.
“You sleep in these. On Saturdays, you will bring them here to be washed, and collect a new pair.” A pair of thick flannel pants with a buttoned shirt of the same material, a pair of wool socks, and thin underwear were thrust into his arms. “Your day clothes will be in the chest at the end of your bed by morning.”
Tony was allowed just enough time to put the clothes on, then was ushered out of the door and down a long hallway. The man opened the door onto a large room, with large pane windows and three rows of beds, with nine beds in each. The rows were spaced evenly so that there was a wide path between the rows as well as between the rows and the walls. Enough space for two adults to walk through comfortably.
In every bed but one, there was a boy handcuffed to the bed frame and sleeping on their back. Tony looked at each of their faces, and sizes, and came to the conclusion that he was likely the youngest and smallest boy there.
“You will sleep here.” The man led Tony to the only empty bed, and stood beside him as Tony got under the covers.
As he went to turn on his side, the man roughly shoved him onto his back and grabbed his wrist tight enough to bruise, adding to the ring of abused flesh. Without a sound, the man put one side of a pair of handcuffs around his right wrist, and clipped the other around the bed frame.
The sound of the tumblers in the locking mechanism turning and connecting was so final, so tangible, that Tony could no longer hope that this was just a dream.
His father had not sent him to a school, but to a prison.
He was eleventh in his class of twenty-two, and that put him on nearly everyone’s shit list.
The WinterIron Server makes me so productive. You can thank them for this.
Btw, anyone who was expecting any sort of canon compliance... sorry. Apprently I’m allergic to following canon.
Trigger Warning for blood and violence.
“Again!” Mistress Mikhailov snapped, smacking the back of Tony’s thighs with her long, thin cane.
Silently, because a response would only earn him extra time in the Courtyard, Tony went up on his toes and assumed the position.
“Begin.” Mistress barked in her smoke rough Russian.
Tony pointed his toe in prep, went up on his toes, stepped back behind with his right foot, and pushed off into a spin. Leg out to gain momentum, tucked behind the knee to complete the spin. Out, in, out, in, out, in. On the toe, flat to push off, on the toe, flat. Over and over he recited the steps in his mind, completing six full turns before he lost his center of balance and stumbled through the last turn, barely saving face by coming to a stop in a plié.
“Unacceptable. You will do it again.”
Onto his toes he went. There would be no argument. Even though he had been doing fouettes for the better part of six hours, with no breaks. It did not matter that he could feel the blisters on his heels popping, staining his pointe shoes and leaving little drops on the studio floor. It was inconsequential that the knife wound Pietro had given him was staining his leotard because it had reopened and his calves were aching. If Mistress wanted him to do it again, he would. Pain could be fortifying, but, for the most part, pain was a distraction.
Tony remembered Mistress Mina ripping out his fingernails in a mock interrogation, holding his head in a tub of water as punishment for every time he screamed in response. He could not let the pain distract him like it had then. Resolutely, he chose not to acknowledge the feeling, and went back into his turns.
This time, he completed a successful set of seven fouettes. Albeit, just barely. Tony had expected to be forced to do it again, Mistress Mikhailov not one known for accepting anything less than perfect, but was saved from that fate by Mistress Mina rushing in. She was talking in her fast, St. Petersburg accented Russian, and Tony found it hard to understand her no matter how hard he listened.
“He is here. They want him to train the top of the class.”
That was all Tony could pick out from the quick rush of words, and his heart sank. He was not the top. He was better than average, but so were all of the ballerinos of the Red Room. He was thirteenth in his class of twenty-seven, and that put him on nearly everyone’s shit list. He was better than most, but less than the top. Which meant whoever this man was, Tony would not be training with him. Tony would, however, have to fight against those trained by him. Not the best, but not so terrible as to be no challenge for the best students. He was expendable.
Tony wasn’t dumb. He knew that only the very top of every class graduated. The rest were whittled away. Killed. Holding no more value than a practice dummy.
“Line up!” Mistress Mikhailov snapped, indicating the barre.
Immediately, every ballerino in the room got to their feet and stood where they had been instructed. Most of the other boys looked terrified. Their faces showed masks of indifference, but Tony had been a master of body language since the age of four. These boys had the forcibly relaxed posture of the truly afraid. The ones who didn’t look ready to piss their leotards from fear, might as well have been smirking triumphantly. Their chins were held higher than the rest, and their eyes were glinting with pride as they stood at an easy parade rest.
How could Tony blame them, any of them, though? This man was obviously important, for he had never seen either of the mistresses so close to being frazzled. Eleven years he had been here, and at no point in that time had Tony seen Mistress Mikhailov do that strange flutter with her hands. They were hovering over her dress, seemingly undecided of what part of the fabric to smooth, pull, or rearrange.
It was concerning, Tony thought vaguely. He should probably be concerned. But instead, he was fascinated. His whole life, for he could not pretend that this was just a practice of the Red Room, he had been trained to spot weaknesses. Any minute shift in posture or expression could be used against someone, if you knew what you were looking for. Tony definitely knew, and he catalogued everything he could about Mistress Mikhailov’s behaviors and what caused them. It was obvious that whoever was arriving outranked Mistress Mikhailov in station.
Tony understood what was happening, of course. The eldest boys attending the academy had left a year after he had arrived, having completed their training and embarking on their first solo mission. Only three boys had graduated. Of the previous class of thirty, only three had survived to their solo mission.
It was common knowledge that at seventeen, you began training for your solo mission. Sessions were no longer about winning in order to garner favor, but in order to survive. Only the strongest left these walls on their own two feet.
Tony’s class were all 17, having been born in the same year. It was time for them to start.
Through the door came a man with long, slightly unkempt hair. His face was covered by a mask, but Tony would recognize those empty-haunted-calculating eyes anywhere. Even if he hadn’t, the metal arm would have been unmistakable.
Through sheer force of will, and almost a lifetime of training, Tony showed no outward signs of having recognized the man. He doubted the man remembered him, as he was being tortured at the time. Tony remembered him, though. Vividly. Thought of him every night, when he was handcuffed to his bed and couldn’t sleep. The screams no longer gave him nightmares, but fascinated him. He found himself analyzing them, picking up the hints of desperation and unadulterated animal cries of anguish. Anguish of the mind more so than the body, though that had definitely hurt him.
It was December nineteenth, 1991 and Tony was looking into the eyes of the man who had started him on this path.
“These are the boys,” Mistress Mina stepped up, wringing her hands nervously.
The man said nothing, but looked all of the boys over. Quick as lightning, he had a knife pulled from a sheath and buried in the wall by Maksim’s head. It had cut into the boy’s ear before finding its resting place, and a thin stream of blood was now running down the shell to stain his leotard.
The mask was removed and then the man spoke. “Slow.” He said simply, then turned to the mistresses and addressed them. “We begin tomorrow. They will eat and sleep now. In the morning, we test them.”
One thing Tony could always appreciate, was someone who was concise with their words.
Tony woke to the same scene as he woke to every morning. Mistress Černý was moving through the room and undoing the cuffs on each boy’s wrist. As she made her way through the room, the boys who had already been allowed up were dressing for time in the Courtyard.
There would be one more empty bed tonight. Tony wondered whose it would be.
“Antonin!” Mistress snapped. Her tiny face, pinching at the brow, was disconcertingly owl like.
Rather than let the inappropriate snicker building in his throat out, Tony offered his shackled wrist to the angry Czech woman. Mistress undid his cuffs without much ceremony, and Tony dressed for the Courtyard.
It was cold, as it always seemed to be here, but withstanding extreme weather was a part of their training. They had to adapt to situations, and warm clothes weren’t always available. Rather than long wool, they wore tight, stretchy shorts and form fitting shirts. Tight enough to keep from being used as a handhold for the opponent, but loose enough not to be restricting.
All of the boys sufficiently dressed, they were marched in formation down to the Courtyard, which was a large area between the two main buildings of the academy. The only way to access it was through one of the two buildings, as it was completely walled in.
Here, two boys from each class would be selected to display their skills to the Mistresses. For the older boys, it was a match to the death. Once all classes had produced a winner, the remaining boys would have breakfast at the stone tables right there in the Courtyard. They were to eat their breakfasts, while the lifeless corpses of the bested boys lay in plain view. Conditioning is what it was, Tony was certain of it. Maybe a scare tactic. He thought that was also likely.
Maybe it meant something that Tony could not remember a time that the sight of the bodies had made him sick. Maybe it meant he was already one of the monsters they were trying to raise the boys to be. Or maybe it didn’t mean a thing. His father was the Merchant of Death, after all. What good would it do for Tony to be repulsed by it?
Though there may have been a time, a time he may have a vague sense memory of, where he was repulsed, and frightened, and hopeful . They told him it was true. The mistresses told Tony that he had been a sniveling child, crying out for his maman. But Tony did not remember his maman, much less a time where he would have cried out for her. All he could remember, as far back as he could remember, was the cold numbness and ruthless calculation. He only did what befit his needs. And currently, his needs were to stay alive and protect Natalia.
Tony didn’t expect to be chosen for the Courtyard, as he had been injured earlier in the week during training, but it made a sick sort of sense. He was injured, and therefore not in peak condition. It was likely they expected him to put enough of a fight for it not to look rigged, but that he would ultimately be taken down. It would make their prodigies look even better to the man who was here to train them. And, if the other boys were to be believed, the Man with the Metal Arm from his childhood was the infamous Winter Soldier.
Sasha was the boy Tony was going up against. He was taller than Tony, all of the boys were to be honest, but not by much. His frame was larger, something that had held him back from being top of their class in combat as well as ballet. As things stood, he was ranked third in combat situations.
Tony had no desire to kill his classmate, but knew Sasha did not feel the same. The boy was bloodthirsty in a way that Tony knew would ensure Sasha never graduated. There was no room for that in the Red Room. Passion of any kind was not encouraged.
Stepping out of the line, Tony turned to face Sasha. They did the customary bow, and then Sasha came at Tony full force. Because he was still partially bent in his bow, Tony allowed the move to knock him off of his feet and right onto his butt. The momentum had taken Sasha by surprise, causing him to overbalance, and Tony took that opportunity to twist out from underneath the larger boy and stand a few feet away.
They went head to head, Tony staying on the defensive by parrying and dancing out of Sasha’s reach with his greater agility. Being small would always be an advantage in evasive maneuvers.
Sasha was getting frustrated with Tony, it was obvious by his face, but apparently the mistresses were also getting frustrated. So far, Sasha had not been able to exhibit any of his skill, and Tony was not flagging from exertion like they had obviously expected. His stamina was high, especially when he was determined. He just wasn’t often determined.
The dynamic shifted quickly when Tony saw the flash of a blade being tossed into the fight. It was against the rules, technically. This was supposed to be entirely close combat, hand-to-hand with no weapons. But what had the Red Room ever cared for rules?
Too far from the blade, which had been thrown precisely enough that it could not have been a random enhancement to the fight, Tony could only watch as Sasha snatched it up. Whatever advantage Tony had, was now gone. The only way he could win was to get that knife away from Sasha.
Time slowed as Sasha came at Tony. It was obvious what move Sasha was trying to accomplish. He was aiming for Tony’s right side, but his weight was balanced in a way that told Tony it was a feint.
Making the decision to let Sasha believe his plan would work, Tony went for a punch to the face he knew would never land. The knife slid in just below Tony’s lowest rib, nearer the center of his chest than his side. It missed his lung, but just barely. The angle was off for a lung puncture, but Tony knew it would still hurt like a bitch later when the adrenaline was not rushing through his system.
Doubling over to lean into the hit, Tony grabbed Sasha’s wrist and spun hard, breaking the other trainee’s arm at the elbow. He used his momentum to bring Sasha to the ground, pulling the blade out of his side. He used one hand as a blunt force on the base of the knife, driving it into the hollow of Sasha’s throat, effectively severing his carotid artery.
Tony was covered in blood, Sasha’s and his own, and he was starting to feel woozy. Fighting through it, he stood and bowed to the mistresses. They were obviously stunned. They had made the same mistake of all of the people they were sending these boys out against; they underestimated him. The soldier, however, was watching him closely with calculating eyes.
He would graduate, was his next vicious thought. He couldn’t leave Tasha on her own. And then he passed out.
Another crash came from the infirmary, where Tony had just flipped the third bedpan of the day.
The nurses were getting tired of him, which was his goal. If they were annoyed enough, they would kick him from the infirmary. It turns out he didn’t need to try so hard though, because they were removing him from the infirmary that day anyways, for practice.
Tony had completely forgotten that the Black Widows were coming to live with them for several months in preparation of the joint tour of Swan Lake that the schools were doing.
For all that the Ballet Academy was a front, they took it very seriously.
“Anton. You are healed enough to continue your work. The girls are arriving today, and practices will begin shortly after.” Mistress Mikhailov had settled some in the two weeks since the soldier had come, but she was still off. The soldier put her on edge, apparently.
Relieved to be rid of the white walled infirmary, that smelled strongly of blood and disinfectant, Tony gathered up his lessons and followed Mistress Mikhailov to the boys’ room. Once there, he dressed in the leotard in his trunk, which was much less blood-stained than he remembered it being. They must have given him a new one. Dressed and ready, Tony made his way to the foyer to wait.
The girls arrived not too long after Tony had made it to the foyer, and immediately he spotted Natalia. Her red hair was pulled back in the severe bun that was common of ballerinas, and her small feet moved lightly over the floor. The smallest of all of the Widows, Natalia hid easily amongst them. Unless you knew what to look for.
He had to admit that his младшая сестра was beautiful, in a deadly way. The other boys thought she was beautiful as well. Tony had heard them talking. It was laughable, really, that they believed they could get anywhere near Natalia without Tony ripping their tongues from their heads, so that they could no longer pant after her.
At fourteen, Natalia was too young for the boys to be looking at her that way. And Tony would enforce that idea in any way he deemed fit.
Natalia had spotted him as soon as she had entered the building, just slightly before Tony had spotted her. She wasn’t the best for nothing. Her sharp eye catalogued the changes in Tony’s appearance, noting how he favored his left side. She would ask him about that later.
For now, they had work to do. The two of them were Odette and her prince, and time could not be wasted.
As Odette, Natalia had gotten her own changing room for rehearsals. Tony wasn’t supposed to be in there, but he had made an excuse about retrieving his pointe shoes to get away from the crowd. The mistresses were so preoccupied by the soldier, showing him off and bragging to the mistresses of the Widow Program, that they had not thought to send another to accompany Tony.
The end result of that was Tony, sitting in Natalia’s changing room and talking while he laced up his shoes.
“Antonishka, is there something you would like to tell me?”
Tony shook his head, standing from his crouch, as he definitely did not want to tell Natalia what had happened.
On quick feet, the little ballerina came over to him and punched him directly above the healing wound.
“Fuck!” he swore loudly at the unexpectedly sharp pain, giving Natasha a look.
Natalia should not have been so intimidating, skinny arms crossed over a mostly flat chest, but she definitely was.
“I was selected for the courtyard,” he told her, hoping that was explanation enough.
She raised one auburn eyebrow and waited.
Blowing out a breath, Tony explained. “I let Sasha stab me so I could take his knife.”
Again, Natasha punched him. In the arm this time. It would leave a sizable bruise.
“дурак,” she muttered at him, somewhat angrily.
“It was that, Natashka, or die.”
They held eye contact with each other, both stubborn as a mule, until a knock at the door startled them into action. Tony expertly slid behind the rack of costumes in the room, and used it to boost himself up into the rafters.
“What is it?”
“Are you almost prepared? As soon as Anton comes back with his shoes, we will be prepared to begin.
“Da.” Clear, concise, and no hint of deception.
When the footsteps could no longer be heard, Tony slipped down from the rafters and walked by Natalia to give her a kiss to the forehead.
“You could scare the Baba Yaga, Antonishka.”
“And you would send him running, Natashka.”
It was their standard call and response for departing from one another. No ‘I love you’s or declarations of familial affection, but the caring and trust was conveyed just as effectively.
With that, Tony slipped from the room to let Natasha finish preparing.